Dear Indiana Teacher
Written by: Yvonne Thompson
Dear Indiana Teacher,
You are probably sad and frustrated today, and I am grieving with you. A retired air traffic controller I knew who tutored high school math students lost his fight against COVID-19 three weeks ago. Doug was tough and selfless with kids, and he changed their lives. I think of his wonderful spirit, and I mourn with dedicated educators across this state who now face daily battles against this horrific pandemic. The loss of instructional time, field trips to the zoo, academic awards banquets, plays, musicals, spring sports, pictures of prom dresses, and graduation might just seem too much to carry. It is okay to grieve. Here are four things that might help.
1. Expect the Unexpected
The loss of daily connection with your students may not be a literal death, but it is a passing away of normalcy for teachers who pour their hearts into the minds and souls of their kids. When I lost my first child due to a prolonged illness 30 years ago, a friend said, “There is no ‘normal’ way to feel. You’re going to have a range of emotions, and that is okay.” When we lose precious relationships, grief and shock are usually intertwined for the first several days. Deep grief, anger, and frustration often follow. Nothing in our society is normal right now, so don’t bury what you might need to process. Remote learning and new expectations while being holed up at home create unprecedented challenges. Don’t feel guilty or crazy if little things that normally aren’t a big deal suddenly become what you think are irrational frustrations. That is part of grief. Remind yourself this is temporary. Reflect on what you can learn about yourself and about your educational practices. Lean on those who have shared experiences. We are all figuring this out together.
2. Control What You Can Control
Name and claim the specific losses you feel. Beyond your students, who or what else are you grieving? The suffering of a loved one? Safety for healthcare workers? Your own children’s struggles with remote learning? Cancelled family celebrations and activities? Financial fears? Identify what scares and saddens you. “Naming and claiming is a touch point or a form of connection when we share with (one) another or say it out loud,” explains Dr. Lori Desautels, Assistant Professor at Butler University’s College of Education and author of How May I Serve You? Revelations in Education. When we “sit with” and accept our emotions and how they influence our ability to perceive situations and how we might respond and think about those situations, we have more control over our thoughts and ways we approach those situations, she added. “It is so helpful to draw our thoughts or feelings, write in a journal, or have a conversation with ourselves or a trusted friend or family member. Those practices help to calm and regulate our nervous systems,” Dr. Desautels says. You can also turn your worries into positive action. One monumental loss for teachers is the ability to check on students’ wellbeing. Teachers know not everyone will get a $1200 stimulus check. They worry about kids who struggle with anxiety and depression. By recognizing their heaviest concerns, some teachers have scheduled Zoom check-in times to encourage their students. Decide what you can control and what steps you will take to help you and your students get through this. Be mindful, creative, and rely on others for ideas and support.
3. Give Yourself Grace
Teachers are givers and fixers. In the next few weeks, some of us will have to say, “This was broken. I did the best I could, but I couldn’t fix it.” Don’t feel bad if you let up on expectations of students if that seems okay right now. If you adjust some norms you usually place on yourself to tend to your own needs or those of your own family, you are not failing your students. Indulge in virtual social hours, good books, exercise, connecting with old friends, new recipes, and movies you haven’t had time to watch. Don’t feel guilty. Be sure to do something positive for yourself at least once a day. “Uncertainty and unpredictability over a significant period of time can activate our stress response systems which affect our fight/ flight or shut down systems and can affect the way we think clearly, emotionally regulate, pay attention, and what and how we remember,” Dr. Desautels says. She explained that when people are in chronic unpredictability, “We function from a survival brain state that is reactive and reflexive, increasing our heart rates, blood pressure and respiration. Taking intentional deep breaths or taking a walk can begin to calm those regulatory networks in lower brain regions.” If you feel stress, do something physical and breathe deep. Don’t forget some quiet time.
4. Fight With All Your Might
The school year is not over. Kids may be at home, and you still have tremendous influence over the content and the life lessons you can teach them. One Economics teacher I know connected a standard related to unintended consequences to an activity where students checked in on each other and those they cared about. Others are utilizing technology in unprecedented ways. Ask your administrators and technology folks for help. For those students who are giving up? Let them know this is hard for you, too, and you believe in their ability to persevere. Empathize with them that this is terrible, but emphasize it is temporary. You’ve got this—just keep loving your students. Continue changing their lives with the sacred time you’ve been given. Honoring All Indiana Teachers & My Friend Doug, Yvonne Thompson